Truth really is stranger than fiction which is why a musical has been created about the legendary womaniser and gambler, Sir Henry Browne Hayes (1762-1832), who scandalised Cork with his abduction of a wealthy young woman, and ended up being deported.
Cork composers, Alan Kiely and Kevin Connolly, who created a show entitled Murder at Shandy Hall last year, starring Patrick Bergin, have put the colourful story of the
outrageous Regency libertine to music. Cathal McCabe, former head of music at RTÉ, directs it, having applied classical arrangements to the score.
Derry-born McCabe wasn’t aware of Sir Henry until he started to research him. Motivating the cast on the first day of rehearsals, he advised them to keep in mind the question: ‘Is Sir Henry the wickedest man in Ireland?’
“There seems to have been no limit to what he would do,” says McCabe. “He’s one of those characters that crop up every so often who by their actions are awful. But people still liked Sir Henry. He was adored by Cork people. I suppose he had charisma and there was the matter of him being titled. Also, I think abduction wasn’t considered quite as serious then as it is now.”
Sir Henry was married to a wealthy woman and the couple had three children. He also had a further three children by three other women. His father supported the illegitimate children.
When Sir Henry was financially embarrassed, he took the advice of a local barber friend, Charlie Coughlan. The target of the scam was Mary Pike who had been bequeathed a
fortune by her banker father, Samuel Pike. Sir Henry came up with a ruse, writing to Pike to say her mother was dying. So Pike left her uncle, Penrose Cooper’s home near Tivoli, and set off to see her mother. Sir Henry and some accomplices stopped her and brought her to his home in Vernon Mount in Douglas.
“Because Pike had been abducted, the general populace and the gentry in Cork would assume that her virginity was taken and therefore she wouldn’t be able to marry anyone else. But before Sir Henry could come up with a marriage ceremony, his father discovered what was going on and saved the girl’s virtue.”
Sir Henry became a fugitive – with benefits. “Apparently at the time, the year before the 1798 rebellion, a fugitive could not be arrested on a Sunday because it was the day for going to Mass. So Sir Henry was able to walk around town on Sundays. But he was otherwise miserable with funds running low and he was also missing his children.”
The authorities put a reward of 500 guineas on Sir Henry’s head and Pike’s protector, Penrose Cooper, matched that amount. Sir Henry persuaded the barber to betray him so that the dodgy duo could enjoy the proceeds, shared between them.
Sir Henry was arraigned in court. He was condemned to death by hanging. But being a member of the Freemasons in Cork, a petition was sent to “the laws of the land. Eventually, he was reprieved from being hanged and was transported to Australia. The show ends at this point. The last scene is Botany Bay in New South Wales.”
Henry’s life in Australia was just as colourful as his time in Cork, and contains more than enough material for a sequel. After he served his six months as a convict, he thrived for a while, even building a large house, Vaucluse, which has since given its name to a well-to-do suburb of Sydney. Apparently, the house was surrounded by Irish turf to keep the snakes at bay.
He also clashed with William Bligh, of Bounty fame, before returning to Ireland and was eventually buried at Christ Church, now part of Triskel Arts Centre in Cork.
Asked if Sir Henry had any redeeming qualities, McCabe hesitates before saying: “ I suppose he was entertaining. But you feel the depravity of the man when he gets back to Vernon Mount with Mary Pike.”
The show is based on fact; you couldn’t make it up.